Most people know that the first atomic weapon was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in August of 1945; many can recite the date as the 6th, but few know when chemical weapons were introduced into the arsenal of war. On April 22, 1915 allied troops near Ypres, France were subjected to a mass attack with chlorine gas, known today as a pulmonary or choking agent.
This was not the first attempt to use chemical weapons, but it was the first successful use. French troops were caught unaware and unprepared and quickly retreated leaving the way open to for the Germans to drive to the English Channel. The Germans, as luck would have it, were equally unprepared for the success of the attack and failed to capitalize on it and drive forward. It is estimated that nearly 1.3 million casualties were inflicted by poison gas during the First World War.
The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibited the use, but not the possession of chemical weapons. We have seen other attempts to control the production and use of these weapons. The latest is the UN Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits these weapons in any form and outlaws their production. One hundred and ninety-two nations and other legal entities have signed the treaty codifying this prohibition.
While the convention has garnered many signatories, exceptions being Egypt. Sudan and North Korea, it requires self-declaration and has no true enforcement mechanism. Recent use of chemical weapons has resulted in a great outcry from all the nations but with little action taken.
In modern warfare chemical attacks on opposing militaries are deemed to be of limited military value, provided the opposing forces are trained and equipped to respond to these attacks. Most modern armies, those in NATO and other western countries as well as in Russia and former Warsaw Pact nations, are properly equipped and likely trained.
Today the effective use of chemical weapons in warfare against a military force is limited to a twofold purpose, first: psychological, even well-trained troops suffer when trapped behind a mask and in restrictive protective suits. Second: physical, the protective gear restricts and reduces the amount of work troops can perform.
The primary target today of chemical weapons by a nations military is civilian population, unaware, unprotected, and unprepared. Recent evidence of this can be found in Syria.
On August 21, 2013 an attack on civilians in Ghouta, Syria was conducted using rockets loaded with sarin nerve agent killing, by US count, over 1400 and injuring an additional 3600. While Syria and Russia dispute the assignment of responsibility, evidence indicated that the gas used was from Syrian supplies.
The reaction from the West was at first to threaten military action, Russia then stepped in and promised to ensure the removal of all Syrian chemical weapons, which the Syrian government promised to give up. Many tons of chemical agent were removed but even at the time it was doubted Syria gave up all of the chemicals in their stockpile or that it could not make or acquire more, which they promptly did. On April 4, 2017 the Syrian Air Force dropped chemical bombs on Khan Shaykhun killing and injuring scores. The reaction from the US was swift if ineffective. On April 7th 59 cruise missiles were launched at the Shayrat Airbase that was believed to be the staging base for the attack. Syria most recently launched chemical attacks on Eastern Ghouta killingn over 500 citizens during a UN mandated cease fire.
What is getting less attention, likely because of the low body count and covert nature of the attacks, is the use of chemical weapons as political reprisal or as a terror weapon. Instances of such use include the murder of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Malaysia in February 2017 and the more recent attack on a former Russia spy in London on March 4th.
Chemical as well as biological weapons have been referred to as a poor man's A-bomb. Most chemical agents can be produced in a high school chemistry lab following basic instructions. What takes the resources of a country is the weaponization of these agents. By this is meant the manufacture of an agent that can withstand the heat and other aspects of a delivery system such as a bomb or artillery shell and maintain its persistency.
But what of the terrorist who does not need to produce large amounts or fire it from a cannon to reach an enemy some distance away? The agent in this case can be delivered locally and does not have to remain lethal for any length of time to produce terror. Evidence of what a group can do is seen in the sarin attacks by the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo with a trial run in 1994 and a full-scale attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. The sarin used in Japan was manufactured in a facility built by the cult specifically to produce the gas. It is fortunate that while able to produce sarin they did not understand how to use it. The gas, while deadly, was trapped inside the subway station where it was released.
The world is faced today with the constant threat of terrorist attacks by ever more sophisticated groups, backed in many cases by hostile states. The tactics and methods are varied and based on a single person or a small group. In November of 2015 130 people were killed in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris. Seeing an increase in the use of chemical agents around the world we must ask what is next.
Imagine if you will a group backed and controlled by a hostile government and given the resources to produce any number of chemical agents. Assume these agents were manufactured in aerosol form and released on the streets of a major US city. How would the people and the government react? How could they react? If we identified the group and knew it was backed by, say Iran, or any other nation, what would be the response?
United States policy on the use of chemical weapons in war, or any weapon of mass destruction (WMD), is to respond in kind. The US destroyed all its chemical weapons years ago and has only nuclear weapons that would be considered WMDs. Would we or could we respond with nukes? It is unlikely we would and for very good reasons. The use of nuclear weapons would result in massive casualties. There is no way to adjust them and ensure proportionality.
As the world gets smaller and our enemies more sophisticated we need to accept that the terror of chemical weapons that has plagued friend and foe alike may not be too far from our shores. In the military we teach that the three basic rules for chemical attacks are Avoidance, Protection and Decontamination. As the new target of chemical warfare has become civilian populations, we must first and foremost concentrate on avoidance. The best way to avoid a chemical attack is to ensure it does not happen. This will require full cooperation between law enforcement, the intelligence community and our allies.
Like a bomb, chemical agents are made of separate parts, each innocuous by itself but when assembled lethal. Watching for unusual sales of identified chemicals is a start. Watching for the sale of equipment is another part of the puzzle. There are other actions to take that we will let the government keep secret.
The time to address the threat is now. No one expects a major chemical attack in a US city tomorrow, but no one expected passenger airliners to be used as missiles either.